Amy Ellings thought she knew what to expect last year when she agreed to donate blood for a study that would measure the levels of chemicals in her body. It focused on pregnant women in their second trimester in order to gauge what kind of chemical "body burden" they might be passing on to their developing baby. It sounded a little sci-fi, but Ellings, of Olympia, Washington, knew she led a healthy lifestyle: "I'm a public-health nutritionist, so I was interested to see the results, but I figured everything would be normal."
Two months after she gave birth to baby Nick, Ellings learned that her blood samples had contained 12 different chemicals known as endocrine disruptors, which can interfere with the body's ability to produce hormones. Two of these chemicals, bisphenol A (BPA) and diethyl phthalate (DEP), were at levels higher than those found in 90 percent of American adults. "I was blown away," says Ellings. She wondered whether she'd been exposed to these chemicals because she'd grown up in a small industrial town. But BPA and DEP break down quickly, which means her blood test revealed only what her body had accumulated within the previous three days. "I was shocked to learn what my unborn baby and I were exposed to," she says.
You might think Ellings is an isolated case, but biomonitoring studies show that these endocrine-disrupting chemicals (or EDCs) are now found in virtually all of us. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified detectable levels of BPA, for instance, in 93 percent of people tested, and phthalates like DEP in at least 75 percent of the population. "These chemicals weren't in most consumer goods as recently as 40 years ago," says Parents advisor Philip J. Landrigan, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City, and director of its Children's Environmental Health Center. "Now they're in our bodies, and we don't understand all the ways they could impact our health because no previous generation of humans has ever been exposed to them."
What we do know: As the environmental exposures and chemical burden on our bodies has risen, so have rates of diseases, particularly those that impact kids, including asthma, childhood cancers, autism, and ADHD. Hormones, and chemicals that mimic them, may play a key role in the evolution of these health problems because they work as chemical messengers, traveling through the bloodstream to affect the development of tissues and organs, as well as influencing body processes like metabolism and reproduction. "There is no more dangerous time for this toxic exposure to occur than during pregnancy and early childhood, when organ systems are still in development," notes Andrew Weil, M.D., founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona.
But nobody knows what level of toxic exposure might trigger a particular disease. Even though many EDCs break down quickly, their levels are constantly increasing in our body because we encounter them every day -- in our food, beauty products, and even from the furniture in our own home.